The Inaugural Contemporary Artist Retreat by Cara Ober
Can a divided art community come together across barriers of education, experience, race, age, class, and gender and begin to heal itself? What happens when you take artists out of their element and place them in close proximity for four days and three nights?
The Contemporary, Baltimore’s nomadic and non-collecting museum, took Baltimore’s art community a few steps forward when they invited 50 local artists, along with 25 national arts consultants including critics, curators, gallerists, and collectors, for three days of intensive professional development, community building, and networking. Their inaugural retreat was free for all selected artists and included transportation to and from the center, lodging, and all meals.
The Contemporary Staff and Team of Volunteers
The retreat was hosted at the bucolic Pearlstone Center, a Kosher retreat and working farm, located just outside Reisterstown, MD, about a twenty-five minute drive outside of Baltimore. Once artists arrived, they found green rolling hills, lots of hand painted murals, comfortable cabin and dorm accommodations, fresh vegetables, chickens, baby goats, and, eventually, each other.
In his Art F City recap, Michael Farley half joked, “I was never one of those children who made lifelong friends and happy memories at a summer camp, but I think The Contemporary has more than compensated for that.” The ‘art camp’ environment, secluded, woodsy and rural, felt, in many ways, like an opportunity to reinvent the ‘Meatballs’ era concept – where color-coded lanyards represented levels of access in the art world and evening happy hours were the reward for hours of intense listening.
What stood out initially, and was continually reinforced over the weekend, was the rich diversity within the arts in Baltimore. Retreat participants were selected from an application process and the Contemporary’s staff made a diligent effort to select as various a group as possible – different ages, races, experience levels, both degreed and self-taught, and a combination of performing, literary, and visual artists.
It was much less of a ‘who’s who’ of the Baltimore art scene, and more of a ‘Who’s that?’ scenario, where all sorts of practices were represented, with many artists new to the community and not traditionally involved or represented.
“We were surprised that artists in Baltimore’s very active arts community were unaware of other artists and spaces that they would definitely benefit from connecting with,” explained Lu Zhang, Deputy Director of The Contemporary and organizer of the event. “We built the retreat to facilitate these meetings. Our aim through the retreat was to provide a structure for these introductions and a space for conversations to unfold.”
This spirit of camaraderie and conversation was reinforced by assigned seating during dinners, where artists and advisors who didn’t know each other previously were encouraged by ‘table leaders’ to talk and engage.
“The most salient thing for me is that we are a part of a huge and excellent creative community,” said TC Curatorial Council Advisor Elissa Blount Moorhead, who served as a retreat consultant and conducted a workshop on parenting for artists at the retreat. “Since moving here I have been so worried about the ‘silo’ phenomena in such a small community. If I am being completely honest, I was also worried about excellent and rigorous artists staying here and not fleeing to NYC or LA. I often talk to artists that haven’t heard of other artists who have similar practices. It’s shocking. It is not for lack of desire to find each other. The retreat helped bring artists together across disciplines and areas, ages, and philosophies. It was so confirming. I saw actual collaborations forming (and re-forming) on the spot. Amazing.”
According to Phaan Howng, a participating artist who took advantage of the rural setting by sleeping outside for two nights at the retreat, “I learned about how diverse and motivated the Baltimore art community is. This diversity is not just by race or gender, but by many different forms of art making or art production to express either identity, community, and art in general.”
Ruby Lerner’s Keynote Address on Thursday Night
The retreat opened on Thursday night with talks from Deana Haggag, TC Executive Director, and keynote speaker Ruby Lerner, former Founding Executive Director of Creative Capital, a NY-based arts funding and professional development organization. Lerner is credited for changing the model of arts funding in the 1990’s and is a tireless advocate for supporting artists (not just ‘the arts’), arts writers, and a thriving arts ecosystem.
Lerner discussed the future of labor in our mercurial, tech-based world, positing artists as the answer to the problem of value in the capitalist marketplace – not as a commodity, but as “public intellectuals” who will guide us forward and “advance the creativity of others.”
On Friday, the fifty artists each gave a short presentation about their work, divided into sections by meals and coffee breaks. Artists were encouraged to introduce themselves and their practice; some focused on their personal life or identity politics as it intersected with their art making while others emphasized the evolution of their work and career by itself. Others identified themselves by the range of different art and community projects they engage with, and Lerner’s description of artists as culture producers and advocates was made explicit over and over in a variety of ways.
“I was struck by the number of artists—it seemed like the majority of artists at the retreat– are making work as individuals and are engaged in business/ non-profit initiatives, collaborative projects, and especially, are fiercely committed to community-based, social change work,” said Leslie Shepard, a retreat consultant and former Principal of the Baltimore School for the Arts.
This day could have been incredibly painful, numbing for both mind and ass, but it was actually quite exciting and even joyful. TC offered support and mentorship to artists before the retreat in preparing their talks, and also strictly held artists to the six-minute time limit. MacArthur Fellow Liz Lerman led the audience in stretching and mindfulness exercises throughout the day to keep everyone sharp and engaged. The audience paid attention enthusiastically; it seemed that everyone was giving their support to one another because they felt supported by the group.
“Typically when you are out at openings, most people get shy, weird, or closed off and don’t introduce themselves,” said artist Phaan Howng. “So I was surprised at how well mostly everyone bonded and got along and now KNOW each other. Everyone was open, supportive, and friendly. I think the 6-minute artist presentations helped to perpetuate that the most.”
“Certainly, what was notable on Friday was how almost everyone had their own individual practice but also were involved in additional efforts/ collaborations/ programming/ or some sort of outreach that served the community beyond themselves,” said artist L.E. Doughtie. “Everyone is very active in making the community and keeping it strong, and this echoed a million times through, with The Contemporary and the retreat itself.”
Despite fatigue after twelve hours of artist presentations, Friday night speakers Heather Hart of The Black Lunch Table (BLT) and Sean J. Patrick Carney of the Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF) inspired the audience with true tales of art meets activism, compelling storytelling, and collaborations that have led to significant and surprising results in the art world.
For ten years, BLT has augmented “the dominant history of contemporary art with the testimonies of living, working, African American artists,” creating various formats for the discussion of art, art history, and current events. Described as “a learning experiment,” the BHQF began with art world pranks that achieved NY Times press and inclusion in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, and has expanded into a NY based, free art school that pays its professors a living wage, and a funded summer residency for artists. Both organizations illustrate the power of art and artists in positive social change through authentic relationships and conversation, as well as rebellious “why the hell not?” endeavors.
Deana Haggag and Lisa Dent of Creative Capital, presenting with Sonja Cendak of GBCA’s The Rubys on grants
Jessica Lanzillotti and Cara Ober – Financial Strategies
Saturday was a day of professional development, with speakers and workshops, some required and some optional, around topics of grants, residencies, galleries, the art market, finances, home ownership, advocacy models, and more. I was honored to present a lecture on financial strategies for artists, with Jessica Lanzillotti, a CPA and treasurer on TC’s board.
“Having moved from NYC and watched financial heartache destroy so many artists and artists spaces for decades, I am excited to think Baltimore is a place where creatives can live a fiscally sound life,” said Elissa Blount Moorhead, of the practical discussion of financial literacy.
“The idea of breaking the starving artists myth is radical (sadly). Baltimore is a city where I meet 20 and 30-year old artists who own a home or have a studio. The building blocks for stability are here. Your talk reminded me that this is a place where artist displacement and (unwanted) gentrification does not have to be the imminent outcome. With more fiscal understanding we can avoid the cliché and have a truly artist-friendly place to live and work,” said Moorhead.
The day ended with a series of ‘speed dating’ 20-minute, one-on-one meetings between artists and consultants selected by TC, held in various locations across the campus. I attended as a consultant, and met with four artists I had never met before. Our conversations were artist-directed, ranging from studio time management around parenting, how to get funding, and strategies for developing an audience for your work. In addition to the formal conversations, artists served as resources for each other, offering all sorts of suggestions, solutions, and recommendations.
Pangelica and George Scheer of Elsewhere Project SpaceOne-on-one Meetings between Artists and Advisors
“I was surprised to be in an environment with so many people from the art community at one time,” explained artist Jerrell Gibbs. “If anyone had a question it could be answered by someone present at the retreat. That was awesome!”
“I found the more ‘established’ artists such as Paul Rucker, Eric Dyer and Joyce Scott generous about sharing wisdom,” explained retreat consultant Leslie Shepard. “Lots of networking happened. It was clear to me from the conversations I had with artists that this opportunity mattered to them.”
Saturday night’s dinner, delicious and served cold for Shabbat observances, was followed by a dance party that lasted late into the night. With hangovers that were deemed well worth it, campers checked out on Sunday morning and headed back to Baltimore and destinations beyond.
Besides the lectures and presentations, the artist retreat was an opportunity for artists to bond, talk, and meet new people who will hopefully become collaborators and allies. I was shocked at how many participants said they couldn’t believe there were so many accomplished artists in their city that they had never met or even heard of before.
“This wasn’t completely surprising given TC’s record, but the efficiency and diversity of the work and artists floored me. It was so inspiring and refreshing,” said Elissa Blount Moorhead. “I have already had a gathering with three new young artists that I met there, linking them to some of the film community here in Baltimore.”
TC Artistic Director Ginevra Shay and Artist Dave EassaPresentation by Jess Solomon, Interim Director of the Bromo Arts District – on Civics for Artists
Artist Hoesy Corona took it a step further, coining a new catch phrase for artists in Baltimore. “There is no such thing as “smalltimore” we are BaltiMORE!” He also was pleased to be introduced to so many powerful and diverse Baltimore based artists that he didn’t know before.
By the end of the weekend, the few cliques that followed artists to the retreat had been banished. There was a palpable sense of belonging and openness, and many artists said this retreat made them feel special and valued within their community, and more likely to give back.
“This was an enormous undertaking for Deana, Lu, and The Contemporary staff,” said Leslie Shepard. “It was thoughtfully planned and managed, well-organized, and they created a tremendously positive atmosphere of support for the artists. I sure hope this can happen again. It was a meaningful way to to mobilize and support artists, to learn more about assets and needs. It was wonderful of the Deutsch and Surdna foundations to fund the retreat.”
Lu Zhang and TC Founding Director George Ciscle
“Overall, we are thrilled with the results and so grateful for the generosity of all attendees,” said TC’s Lu Zhang. “It’s been very rewarding to hear about the collaborations, studio visits, and friendships that grew from Artist Retreat 2016.”
Although it is unclear what the plans are for this retreat in the future, or how to measure its success in creating new ties and alliances across boundaries in our local arts ecosystem, the responses of those who participated were unequivocally positive, at least from those I spoke to afterwards.
Can The Contemporary create meaningful and systemic change in Baltimore’s art community and in the city beyond through intense artist getaways? Only time will tell and, honestly, artists tend to work in surprising, subversive, and unexpected ways – so who knows? As for the efforts made and the relationships begun, as well as the dose of fresh air and baby goats, there’s a palpable sense of excitement and hope for the future among those who attended.
“The Contemporary Museum is taking creative risks where they matter,” said Hoesy Corona. “They are investing in the longevity of local artists careers and by default benefiting the national and international creative landscape.”
D. Watkins and the rest of the audience pay attention, drink coffee, and take notes
Deana Haggag and Rosie, Lisa Dent’s traveling ‘therapy dog’
Jess Solomon, Taylor Renee Aldridge, and George Scheer
Shannon Wallace and Jane Brown
Adorable Retreat Totes for all participants
Hunter Bradley loves the goats!
Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt, which is funded in part by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, cited as a funder of The Contemporary Retreat in this article.
The Contemporary convened it’s inaugural Artist Retreat from Thursday, August 4 to Sunday, August 7. From TC Website: “This retreat supported The Contemporary’s mission by affirming that artists are invaluable to society and are worthy of professional, scholarly, and financial investment. It is generously supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation and Surdna Foundation.”
Photos by Olivia Obineme, courtesy of The Contemporary